One of the best-known commandments of the Christian faith is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), yet we find that spoken by Christ only once, in the Gospel of St. Mark. We are all familiar with Jesus’ exhortation to love ones enemies, yet that is found only twice in the Gospels (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:35).
But on four separate occasions, in four places in the Gospel, Jesus gives us His teaching on the permanence of marriage and the question of divorce (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:9; Luke 16:18). Our readings for this weekend show us why that teaching was so important for Christ as He instructed the first disciples, and why it remains so central in our own time.
In our first reading this morning, from the Book of Genesis, we have God’s dream for the human family. It is His plan for creation and for the flourishing of life and love with Him and with each other. That dream became a reality in the Garden of Eden, Paradise right here on earth.
Man and woman were created in union with God, knowing and loving Him freely. They were also united to each other in total, self-giving love; Eve was taken from the side of Adam, bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.
But not long after that dream became a reality, original innocence was lost and the original unity between man and woman was broken. It was the loss of God’s dream for every one of us. We experience the effects of that loss on a daily basis.
In the Gospel this morning, the Pharisees hold up that broken dream for Christ—“in order to test Him”—and they ask him what He thinks about the very painful situation of marriage and divorce. Moses allowed divorce, they tell Him. What do you say?
Jesus surprises them all by pointing out that, when you go back to the teachings of Moses, then you haven’t gone back far enough! Jesus takes them all the way back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis, and He says:
From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.
With that very unexpected reply, Christ makes it perfectly clear that the dream of God found in the Book of Genesis is far from over. God has no intention of letting go of that dream. The original plan for unity—between man and woman and between all of us and God—that plan is the priority and focus of Christ from the beginning. And marriage is central to that plan; so central that Christ raises it to the level of a sacrament.
In the New Testament, marriage becomes the very image for the love between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32). Christ, who many times refers to Himself as the bridegroom, becomes forever united to His Bride the Church. In the past 2,000 years of Church history, through all the difficulties and even the many human failures of members of the Church, Christ has never once broken that relationship. That is the Good News of the Gospel.
It is also one of the major themes of the teaching of our late Pope, John Paul II. From September of 1979 to November of 1984, John Paul II offered weekly presentations on the readings we just heard this morning. For that entire 5-year period, he taught at great length what would later be called the Theology of the Body.
The Theology of the Body is basically a way of looking at the original experiences of man and woman in the Garden of Eden, and seeing there the blueprint for the way God created us—body and soul—and seeing the key to what it means to live a full and blessed life right here in the present time.
Yet in light of all those insights, and after 2,000 years of celebrating the redemption Christ won for us, the question of divorce still remains a difficult and painful one in our own day and age. The statistics—in society, as well as in the Church—are daunting.
And while Christ’s reply in the Gospel regarding the permanent and unbreakable bond of marriage is the same response He gives to us today, there are a number of misconceptions that we should all be aware of, whether we are single, married or divorced.
Many believe that the Church insists a couple should remain together, no matter what the situation may be. That is simply not true. In some cases, such as abuse, where the safety of the spouses or children, physically or spiritually, is involved, the couple can and should separate (CIC, can. 1151-1155). No one should have to live under conditions like that.
Secondly, people sometimes refer to an annulment as a Catholic divorce. It isn’t. An annulment is simply a recognition by the Church that the union of two persons, while begun in good faith and perhaps even bearing great fruit in their relationship together, did not have the requirements necessary to make it a sacrament.
It is by no means a personal judgment on the character of the couple, or a matter of blame. It simply means that the consent between them, or their understanding of the sacrament, or some other essential factor for the sacrament was not present when they began their life together; the sacramental bond of marriage never existed.
Obviously this is too complicated to explain here, but anyone who has a question on annulment and marriage should feel free to contact their parish priest about that matter.
One final misunderstanding that people often have is that those who have gone through a divorce cannot receive communion. Again, this is not true. Those who are divorced and remarried—if their previous marriage has not been annulled—are not able to receive the Eucharist.
This is one of the most difficult and painful consequences of divorce and remarriage, and while many regard it as a “Church rule” or a man made law, it is based upon the words of Christ Himself in the Gospel this morning.
We do not have the authority to change those words; we are bound by them. But we are also bound by the rest of Christ’s words and teaching, as well. I began this homily with the Christian commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). That love is due to all people: single, divorced, married, re-married, all.
As people of faith and followers of Christ, we need to constantly evaluate our lives to see if we are following that commandment. Who are the people in our lives perhaps struggling in their marriage and in need of our prayers and help?
Who are the people in our lives who have experienced the terrible tragedy of divorce, and need to know that we are there to help them? How is God calling us all to go back to the beginning, and see His plan of love and life for the family and for each individual as men and women made in His image and likeness?
That’s God’s dream, from the beginning, and He invites every single one of us today to make that dream a reality, beginning now, and fulfilled ultimately in heaven.